Monday, May 3, 2010

Reflection: Look to Windward

I came up with the idea during class but it kind of stuck with me: this notion that, what we really see in the Culture with its pseudo-immortality is not a definitive continuation of life. The idea of posterity, however, has been eradicated--you will live on, in some form, and so the creation of art, the productivity, is virtually gone. These people no loner have to work toward a future because they know that they will be in that future, and post-scarcity means that no one has to support themselves. But these future avatars--will they be us?

The first thing I thought of was Dune. In all six books, the only consistent character is Duncan Idaho, but, having been killed in the first book, he has returned as a ghola, a clone of a dead man. By the end of the second book, he has recovered, somehow, the genetic memory of the first Duncan Idaho. In the fourth, we have yet another Duncan, revived by the same process, in the fifth--you guessed it, another Duncan, but this one with the memories of all the other Duncan gholas (gholae? I don't know). So while Duncan Idaho of Heretics of Dune is the culmination of centuries of different Duncans, he is not the original, and that means that the Duncan who first died on Arrakis ended when he died. Ghola Duncan is him, but he is not ghola Duncan.

A similar situation comes up, in a different way, on the show Caprica. My understanding of BSG et al. is rather diffuse, given that I'm working my way through the second season, but one of the things they talk about in Caprica is the creation of avatars. Prior to her death, Zoe Graystone creates an avatar of herself composed entirely of her memories, her data, her personality. When Zoe dies in a tragic accident, this avatar is all that remains of her--but is it a person? It thinks, it apparently feels--which is proven in some pretty upsetting ways, thanks to Daniel Graystone's colossal ruthlessness--but it is not, in effect, the same Zoe who stepped on a train and died. And the Zoe avatar becomes the first Cylon--who definitely believe that they have souls. The monotheist cult to which Zoe belonged believes that the virtual Zoe is proof that life goes on--but is it true?

Yesterday we sat around and talked about what would be best in an alien-human interaction. I didn't contribute, mainly because I've been thinking it through all semester and I'm still not sure I've come up with an answer. It would be nice if we had someone like Ender circa Speaker for the Dead, a man so empathic that he is capable of understanding something totally alien. But remember--the only reason that Ender works so hard toward some kind of reconciliation with the piggies is because he knows the terrible consequences of xenocide. A lot of people suggested Lem's conclusion, which was pretty ambiguous. Frankly, I'd want the Doctor.

I swear, it's not because of David Tennant. But in The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor essentially uses an infinite understanding of other cultures to peacefully repel an alien invasion by the Sycorax--and when the Prime Minister then chooses the Schmittean option, and destroys the alien spaceship, the Doctor becomes livid, and threatens to take down her entire government. But we won't ever get anyone like the Doctor, because he's an alien enamored with Earth. So who do we send?

Do we send Tomas, the guy who basically agreed to disagree with the Martian? Emilio, the linguist? Do we send a brilliant but ruthless empath like Ender? Maybe Marjorie? I frankly don't know. At all. I agree with Stephen Hawking: whatever happens, it won't be pretty, so we should probably hope it doesn't happen. Ideally, though, we'd try to make some sort of understanding rather than kill each other, but as Graff says, species are wired to survive. It creates an odd occasion of mutually assured destruction.

Right to life? If you're a good guy

I recently viewed a threat on my facebook between two friends. One had made a joke about killing Hitler in a comical way mainly because he was evil and deserved it. The other friend, who is against capital punishment in all forms, became offended and stated that no one deserves to be killed based on their moral alignment. In truth, I believe many of us don’t mind seeing Indiana Jones push a Nazi off a tank or James Bond shoot an arms dealer. It is interesting that the reason we hate such people is because they violate the right to life of another, yet we feel this right should be stripped from them. This phenomenon seems t have occurred in Children of God. Although the Runa try to spare some of their oppressors, they still drive them to near extinction, violating the Schmittian policy of only driving an enemy back within their borders. This paradox seems to occur a lot in speculative fiction. Has anyone thought about an orc’s right to life? I believe Buffy can also be used as an example of this. Buffy’s actions are not viewed as murder when she slays countless demons and there is only one episode in which a demon’s right to life was brought up. Ironically this was only done because the demon was a humanoid Native American ghost. This is not to critique Buffy’s heroism or altruism, but don’t vampires have feelings too? In Angel this sort of thinking led to Angel killing a heroic and righteous warrior from a stereotypically evil race. It would be unfair to note that when such creatures are killed it is mainly to save innocent lives and combat an existential threat, thus making right to life a secondary concern. Nevertheless, it is food for thought. Perhaps orcs view us as evil.

Live long and prosper

I would like to discuss the concept of immortality as it is portrayed in “Look to Windward.” Personally, I do not believe the system described in the book ensures immortality and I agree with Phil. Memories and personality is not consciousness. Each individual mind has its’ own consciousness, which, at the moment of death, ceases to exist. Yes, an exact copy of the consciousness can be imprinted, but it is not the same consciousness and never could be. Instead, think of the system like the pony express. One horse rides to one checkpoint carrying the same rider, who takes a different horse at the checkpoint and continues on. The rider (aka the memories and personality) are the same, but the horse (aka the consciousness) is left behind. Thus, if I were a citizen of Culture I would be a bit more hesitant about going lava rafting. Concerning an artificial heaven, how can something synthetic be comparable to the supernatural or an article of faith? A synthetic heaven is a heresy and a substitute. For this reason, how can one’s faith be affirmed by it?
As a final note I would like to thank everyone for a wonderful semester and you all have my best wishes. As I stated in class, I’d like to end on a good note. Although many of the stories we read are discouraging concerning first contact, I’d like to warn against a self fulfilled prophecy. If humans go into a first contact scenario with the belief that we will make erroneous mistakes and are doomed to disaster we will ultimately fail. Instead I say chins up. Yes, mistakes will be made and conflicts will ensue, but humanity is not defined solely by a capacity for evil, but by a capacity for good as well. This world is filled with Emilios and Picards. Let us not limit ourselves with generalization about human weakness, but strive to break our highest expectations.

Substantive on Look to Windward

I found Andrew’s substantive on Look to Windward to be though provoking and raised two important points for me. One was that the novel is unique in providing us with a post-scarcity society and the second was that the Culture is not conflict immune. To me, these statements raise questions on the nature of conflict. One may say that because the Culture is a post-conflict society, their impetus for war is not based on economic causes. My answer to this is twofold. For one, the Culture might be driven into conflict by a society plagued by scarcity and requires resources. My second statement is that although scarcity has been eradicated by the Culture, base desires have not. Humans have a tendency to want what they cannot have, and although most demands have been meet, this does not ensure satisfaction. There is a reason why our society is plagued by phenomena such as “conspicuous consumption” and “affluenza,” and that is that many humans simply want more. Thus I doubt there is such a thing as a post-scarcity society. Yes, perhaps a general level of wellbeing can conceivably be obtained, but as humanity expands it will come into contact to new kinds of goods. Wars have been fought over oil and opium, why not Romulan ale and dilithium crystals? My other feelings on conflict are that even if an enemy is not an existential threat, they may be a threat to one’s ideology or position. If the Culture were conquered by a civilization that viewed synthetics as unprivileged citizens, it would threaten not only the power of the Minds, but the ideological basis of equality in the Culture’s culture.
One thing that intrigued me about the culture was there tolerance for various forms of alien life. Citizens of the Culture seemed blasé and nonchalant about non-human species within their society. Where there was intolerance and conflict was with groups that did not vibe with the egalitarian beliefs of the culture. This I found very interesting… that an advanced society discriminated not on appearance, but on values and culture. Although it was refreshing to see so many sentient groups come together, it was disheartening to think that discrimination does not become extinct but evolves. In America, for example, discrimination seems to jump from group to group: women African Americans homosexuals, illegal immigrants. This is not to deny the existence of racism or sexism, but one cannot deny that such issues have moved out of the limelight in the face of other forms of intolerance. Perhaps one day we can live in a world where the only intolerance is of those who willingly hate and negatively discriminate against others.

Knowledge: Facilitator of Peace or Tool for War

In class we talked about whether or not knowledge of the other necessarily leads to empathy and peace. On this subject Professor Jackson stated that it is this reasoning that drives the Fulbright program and student exchanges, which he is right in saying. Fulbright himself is quoted with saying “The Fulbright Commission aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.” Personally I believe that knowledge can help expedite peaceful relationships, but does not guarantee them. Sun Tzu is quoted with saying “know your enemy and know yourself, find naught in fear for 100 battles. Know yourself but not your enemy, find level of loss and victory. Know thy enemy but not yourself, wallow in defeat every time.” Really it is up to a persons’ mentality and motives to determine what knowledge will do. In the case of Jake Sully, getting to understand and empathize with the Na’Vi led to him becoming part of their tribe and fight against his own species. This seems to be the case of some frontiers people in the US who learned to live with the Native Americans rather than drive them back after being placed in a “Dances with Wolves” like scenario. On the other hand, some frontiers people also used knowledge of the Native Americans to destroy their society with alcohol and exploit them during transactions. Cortez seems to have understood the Aztecs and used this knowledge to try dominating their society rather than view them as human beings. Thus, it would seem that while knowledge can help spur some to empathy, it can be utilized for nefarious reasons.
Can knowledge bring about hate? When we learn about Muslim woman being oppressed in the Middle East are we swayed more by our disgust at the sexism prevalent in their society, or by thoughts of cultural relativism? Even though we can learn why the Nazis did what they did, does this mitigate their crimes when we learn the full extent of the horror they perpetrated against their fellow human beings? As stated before, I believe what effect knowledge has a person depends both on the individual and the individual’s motives. Some wish only to know their enemy in order to succeed. Some people are wholly swayed by argument of cultural relativism. Some people simply find another appealing and wish to empathize. For better or worse, knowledge has an essential and dynamic effect on relations between groups.

Reflection on Eifelheim

I’d like to touch upon two questions raised in class. The first is about the interaction between religion and science and the concept of science as a doctrine. Mginsberg said a great deal about this in their two blog posts on Eifelheim and I found two statements very interesting. One was that we humans generally view science as knowledge about something tangible while religion is faith in the unseen. Thus, when left with unseen and incomprehensible forces such as sub-atomic particles, do our scientific beliefs come to resemble more of a religious faith? The second statement was that they found that when both creationism and the big bang theory are explained concurrently, they are not mutually exclusive. I personally agree with the idea that religion and science, while two separate subjects and lenses, are not at war with one another. How would it be heretical to say that God created neutrons and the natural forces that govern this world? Evolution does not negate the existence of God any more than the cancellation of Firefly mean that it wasn’t a work of genius. An all powerful being can create natural mechanisms, or natural mechanisms are simply there and the being is just along for the ride and works around them. Concerning the second question, science can indeed take on aspects of religion. Like religion, science can be used as a lens through which to view events. Rather than attributing a hurricane to Poseidon, one with a more scientific lens would attribute it to George Bush. I say George Bush not because he’s a deity, but because he contributes to global warming by the hot air that comes out of him and his unsustainable energy policies. That or such a person would simply blame meteorological conditions. Nevertheless, whether an outlook is based in faith in the supernatural or in reason, both still remain to be lenses and part of a person’s mentality. Concerning the unknown and the unseen, science can be used to comprehend phenomenon just as religion is. Instead of a miraculous recovery being attributed to a faith healing, it could instead be attributed to the placebo effect. Again this is not to say either is mutually exclusive. I personally believe that the laws of physics and nature are what make the world the way it is. However, if a car that’s spinning out of control nearly misses me I’ll attribute that near miss not to centrifugal force or friction, but providence.

Vikings: Hope for Change

Although we often view Cortez and Columbus as some of the best indicators of first contact, I think by doing so we do injustice to the Norse explorers of North America. The first contact between the Norse and the Skraelings consisted not of warfare or exploitation, but mutual trade and gift giving. The Norse also generally seemed to settle outside of Skraeling territory and did not encroach on their lands. It is believed by some professionals that this symbiotic relationship lasted for almost 400 years. Such a figure is without a doubt encouraging. Conflicts between the two groups, however, did occur. According to the Greenland Saga a bull from one of the Norse Warriors charged the Skraelings, leading to them to return aggressively in force. Although this goes to show that misunderstandings are indeed great detriments to first contact, it is refreshing to see that conflict did not result from a “friend-enemy’ dynamic or attempts to exploit. Perhaps a beneficial trading relationship and economic interdependence can help ensure peace between two groups.
I enjoyed Morgan’s reflective post on Conquest of America and how it tied in the Mass Effect series. The Reapers, like the conquistadors, almost wiped out an entirely sentient species for the purpose of conquest and slavery. They did this because they viewed their foes, the Protheans, as an entirely different race that was in no way on par with their own synthetic race. The conquistadors viewed the Aztecs in a similar fashion, as an inferior and inherently different species that was expendable. Will humans make such erroneous judgments in the future? Even today in America with education, reasoning and great stores of knowledge we encounter problems of religious fanaticism and racism. In the last twenty years the world has seen genocides in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur. If faced with an extra -terrestrial group that was technologically inferior or needful such as in District 9, would we repeat the same actions as Cortez? Will we view extra-terrestrials as equal sentient beings or “prawns?”